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Clouds on ‘Sunny’s’ horizon

Times Staff Writer

Lightly watched when it debuted last summer on FX, the single-camera comedy “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia” had wit and charm but few of the promotional tools with which to sell them.

This actually helped you experience the show’s wit and charm, like a “Friends” without the glam cast and too-big apartment. You still need an audience, though, which is why Danny DeVito and Anne Archer have been added to “Philadelphia’s” no-name cast, and Fox recently aired episodes in prime time.

It’s all a coup for the show, whose back story is that cast members Glenn Howerton, Charlie Day and creator Rob McElhenney shot a pilot for $200 and ended up getting a series order on arguably the hottest basic cable network going. And “Philadelphia,” when it arrived, did have the quietly clever writing, the sense of place and the genuine cast chemistry of something that had escaped development notice until it was too late to make less true.

The premise: Mac (McElhenney), Dennis (Howerton), his sister Sweet Dee (Kaitlin Olsen) and Charlie (Day) are old high school friends who own a dive bar and reside in shabby apartments in Philadelphia, living out what remains of their somewhat-committal, somewhat slovenly twenties.

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Unlike “My Name Is Earl,” about a slacker penitent, the slackers on “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia” aren’t so reform-minded; they’re more in keeping with “Seinfeld’s” goofy but committed nihilism and self-interest. Mostly, this involves misadventures of the politically incorrect kind -- cruising for chicks on both sides of the argument at a raging protest outside Planned Parenthood, say, in one of the funnier installments last year.

Like its previous droll, declarative episode titles -- “Charlie Gets an Abortion,” “The Gang Gets Racist” -- the new season kicks off with, “Charlie Gets Crippled,” “The Gang Goes Jihad” and “Mac Bangs Dennis’ Mom.”

The titles are somewhat self-explanatory and aim at airborne social taboos, whether they’re renting wheelchairs to get girls or enacting a hipster-doofus occupied-territories conflict with an Israeli property owner who claims their bar is on his land.

As comedy it’s hit-and-miss; what sells the show are the in-between things, the nonsense sibling spats between Dennis and Dee, the way Charlie’s voice rises as his anxiety level does, the loose play of the banter.

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But if giving DeVito a prominent role will up the attendance, it doesn’t immediately up the comedy. He and Archer play nouveau riche slobs, the bitterly divorcing parents of Dennis and Dee, and the show feels more slapstick than I recall it.

DeVito is not totally hamming it up here, just a little voluble, but not long after entering the picture on “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia” he’s having a sitcom midlife crisis, cavorting in Charlie’s bed along with two strippers.

On “Seinfeld,” the parents were out in Queens or Florida, brought onstage in short bursts of tumult played by old-pro character actors like Jerry Stiller.

But “Philadelphia” is looking for a bigger score from its old pros. DeVito the dad just wants to be part of the gang, and the foursome, kicking and screaming and poking fun at this whole sitcom gang concept, makes room.

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‘It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia’

Where: FX

When: 10 p.m. Thursday

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Ratings: TV-MA L,S (may be unsuitable for children younger than 17 with advisories for coarse language and sex)


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